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Haytham Khalifa: ''Egypt will rise again''
CAIRO (Egypt) - After failing to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019, Egypt have set their target on securing a ticket to the 2023 edition. To do that, they must first qualify for the FIBA AfroBasket 2021 in Rwanda from August 24 to September 5.
A powerhouse in Africa with five continental trophies between 1962 and 1983, the Pharaohs have since settled for bronze five times between 1985 and 2003.
Their hold onto the prestigious crown has been deteriorating over the years but according to current captain Haytham Khalifa, the rebuilding process is underway.
Khalifa celebrates with teammates after ending Tunisia's unbeaten run in 2018
Speaking to FIBA.basketball, Khalifa said, "The team's target now is to qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 and we want to take it step by step from the beginning."
"I felt so down after we failed to qualify for the World Cup last year especially because we just needed one more win for us to play at the World Cup. This feeling has made me stronger and pushes me everyday to work harder and never give up."
Egypt were drawn in Group E of the AfroBasket Qualifiers alongside familiar rivals Morocco, Uganda and Cape Verde.
Against Morocco, it is a purely North African affair that carries a lot of history on and off the court and when the two sides meet, they will start from where they left off during the World Cup Qualifiers.
Egypt won their last two encounters against Morocco but they were very close games that went down to the wire both in 2017 (67-63) and 2018 (59-53). Khalifa and his teammates know that they cannot take the Maghreb side for granted.
Games between Egypt and Morocco are always physical
"The group is really good to watch and play basketball of high quality. Morocco have a strong basketball organization as a team - the players and coaches. We do know each other so good. It will be hard to beat them," he exercised caution.
Egypt, who are in the same FIBA Africa Zone 5 as Uganda and compete against each other regularly will be in familiar territory. "Uganda have a good team with good players," Khalifa said.
"The only team that is ready now is Cape Verde as they have already played two games a few days ago so that is why we are going to play tough games. Our squad is different than before. We have a new squad and a new coach with a new strategy and we have more young players. We hope we can get our chemistry quickly so that we are ready."
Marei is back into the Egypt fold as head coach
The 60-year old Ahmed Marei, who guided Egyptian side Al Ittihad Alexandria to the Arab Club Basketball Championship while winning another four titles in the same season, is the most in-form basketball coach in Egypt at the moment.
His mastery of the hoops game and a deep understanding of his players and opponents is what has set him apart from the rest of the pack. When he starts a new chapter with his side later this month at the AfroBasket 2021 Qualifiers in Alexandria from November 27-29, it will be an opportunity to prove that he is the right man for the job.
"Marei's mentality can drive us to the next World Cup if everything he wants happens as he did last season with Ittihad club. He won five championships in one season and finally it is not about Africa and the teams. It is about us Egypt," Khalifa explained.
بالأمس خاض منتخبنا مرانه الأول على صالة الاتحاد السكندري المستضيفة للتصفيات الإفريقية التي تقام في نوفمبر ⛹️💪 pic.twitter.com/4GvuPwxp8e— Egyptian Basketball Federation (@EBBFED) November 3, 2020
As the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic, no fans will be allowed into the stadium to watch the games and support Egypt. Nonetheless, Khalifa and his teammates are up to the task.
"During the World Cup qualifying in Cairo, we had a lot of pressure because of the fans but we were not ready as a team unfortunately. So that is why we wish we could play in front of our fans again because now we are ready. Egypt will rise again," he said.
Khalifa and his family pose with the five trophies won this season in Alexandria
As Khalifa and Marei head into familiar territory to play on a court that has brought them so much success at club level, they will be hoping that they achieve glory with the national side.
"I want my kids to watch me again play in the World Cup and I want to make my country proud. Alexandria is the best city you can play basketball and enjoy it but unfortunately without fans you cannot enjoy it fully, however, we are going to enjoy ourselves by winning all the three games," Khalifa explained.
While Khalifa's children Talia and Selim Haytham, his wife Marwa and many other Egyptian fans will be watching from home, they can be sure Khalifa and his teammates will throw everything on the court to guide their team to the AfroBasket in Rwanda next year.
This, according to Khalifa, is the beginning of their journey to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 that will be hosted in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.